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Warning signs about accused teacher missed by L.A. Unified

March 7, 2012 |  7:50 am

A teacher who faces molestation charges continued to work in Los Angeles schools despite a record that should have raised warning flags. He was tried, but not convicted, in an alleged molestation in 1997 and he previously left a job at a private school after alleged remarks made during a sex education class.

Paul Chapel, who most recently was a third-grade teacher at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima, has pleaded not guilty to 16 counts of lewd acts and continuous sexual abuse of three girls and one boy, each younger than 14, according to a September complaint filed by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

The alleged crimes occurred at school over a seven-month period ending in April 2011, with students who were either in his class or in nearby classrooms, prosecutors said.

FULL COVERAGE: Teacher sex-abuse investigation

His case shares key similarities with that of former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, whose arrest triggered intense scrutiny over the school district's handling of sexual misconduct allegations against employees. Berndt allegedly spoon-fed his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he described as a "tasting game."

Berndt's personnel files contained no records of earlier, unrelated sexual misconduct allegations, which were never proved. Chapel's records are also incomplete, as was the school district's response after the 1997 allegations.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has no record that it ever conducted an internal investigation. District officials say the reason may be that the incident occurred off-campus. Without a criminal conviction, the district did not automatically examine matters that took place off school grounds — even, it turns out, potential child molestation and a related lawsuit.

"Inside the file, there is no evidence that an investigation was done," said Chief Human Resources Officer Vivian Ekchian. "Today an investigation would have occurred."

In this way, the scenario also resembles what happened with former Assistant Principal Steve Rooney. In that case, the district failed to follow up on a 2007 off-campus incident in which Rooney allegedly waved a gun at a student's father. A follow-up investigation would have revealed that Rooney had been having sex with the underage student.

Rooney returned to work and subsequently was convicted of molesting students at Edwin Markham Middle School. In response, the district revised its procedures dealing with alleged sexual misconduct.

In the 1997 incident, Chapel was accused of molesting an 8-year-old neighbor who was sleeping at his house with Chapel's son, who was about the same age. Chapel was accused of assaulting the boy as he slept; the boy broke free and ran home.

According to L.A. Unified records, the day after Chapel was arrested, the district alerted the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing and that agency suspended Chapel's credential. The school district suspended Chapel without pay from Andasol Avenue Elementary in Northridge, where he had worked for about a decade.

The molestation case went to trial. A jury failed to reach a verdict because of the lack of physical evidence — it was Chapel's word against the child's, said an attorney who was involved in the case. Prosecutors opted not to retry the case.

L.A. Unified records indicate that criminal charges were dismissed Aug. 24, 1998. By Sept. 15, the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing had reinstated Chapel's credential and he returned to work — with back pay. He was sent to Telfair.

Chapel, 50, is in custody on $2.2-million bail.


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-- Rick Rojas and Howard Blume